The Bears of Blue River are a Chicago-based outfit that has played over 300 shows since January 2010. The project began as a cleansing for frontman Gavin Wilkinson as he fleshed out a new approach to raw, simple pop songs in 2008 and plotted his escape from Indiana. For almost two years the songs would exist only as home recordings that were crafted by Wilkinson and a cast of revolving friends who just happened to be over on any particular day. However, the end of 2009 and a relocation to Chicago began to expose the Yellow Brick Road of song the band would follow.
The band's on again/off again nationwide touring schedule has included shows with Jookabox (Asthmatic Kitty), Margot & the Nuclear So & So's, Blitzen Trapper, Avi Buffalo, Daniel Johnston, and many more, with stops including a Daytrotter session, two SXSW appearances, The Foburg Festival, and Chicago MOBFest.
Their EP, The Killer Bee Scare, spent over eight weeks in CMJ's Top 200 as well as debuting in the Top 100 despite being an independent release. After re-releasing the EP with Fall Records, the band headed back into the studio in the fall of 2010 with engineer Tyler Watkins to record their first LP Dames. It was not until fall 2011, though, that the record surfaced online as a pay what you wish download on Bandcamp.
2012 has found Wilkinson and the band with a surplus of new material, a thirst for the road and plans to record a series of 7 inches. Check out TBOBR tonight, March 5th at Schubas with The Kickback, Mutts and Psychic Twin, and read on for an interview with the band. Share the Bear!
WCR: Names, instruments you play and an interesting fact?
Maggie Gard: Vocals, bass. Her mom shot a cop.
Justin Spring: Banjo, lap steel, dobro, guitar, piano, vocals. He’s a human fucking map.
Brian Swoveland: Drums. He has two cats named Betsy Ross and Stevie Nicks.
Gavin Wilkinson: Vocals, guitar. His parents met working at Disney.
Strangest venue or gig you’ve ever played?
GW: In 2006, I went on my first east coast tour with an old band. We got to this warehouse in Baltimore that apparently had multiple spaces inside used for shows. There was a mix up along the way and we were booked in an awkward space. We arrived to crack pipes strewn about and a few people passed out around the room. I was handed one hundred dollars cash before we started only to be hushed thirty seconds into our first song. The host was a little overly buzzed and was fretful our noise would bring police. We loaded up and left. I have always felt funny about Baltimore ever since. Oh yeah! Outside we saw a motorcycle gang with matching jackets doing tricks. Ha.
With the Bears specifically the strangest show was in Ames, IA. We played an all ages spaces in the middle of a blizzard. The only people that showed were the Bears, the sound guy (who didn’t know what a direct box was) and the opener which was a married 19 year old Mormon couple. First song in I asked the band to sit down and just played solo. The mother of the Mormon couple showed up and told me I should sleep more.
MG: ...Ames, Iowa.
Were you influenced by old records and tapes? Which ones?
GW: Old ones, news ones, in the middle ones,... YES! I think the earlier songs I wrote for the Bears was during a time period of falling in love with one hit wonders. Songs that were just so incessantly catchy, timeless lyrically, dated sonically, and still changed my life. I grew obsessed with fitting an idea into two and a half minutes. I wanted songs to be short and leave you wanting more but at the same time satisfied.
They don’t fall under one hit wonder but a lot of the earlier Beatles records is what I use a reference for harmonies and such. All the old girl powerhouse singers have taught me not to be afraid to ream someone in a song. Billie Holiday made me okay with being a tad overly sexual in a song. Last but not least, Bob Dylan taught me to pay attention to the details and make song writing a craft.
MG: Of course. My dad used to play old records, while my mom was cooking supper, growing up. It was a bunch of old country, old crooners.
What is the most memorable concert you’ve ever attended?
GW: There’s only a few that have stuck with me over time. One being my first concert ever which was The Beach Boys (sans Brian Wilson) which due to my cousin being too afraid to go alone I got on stage and kicked around a beach ball. Other than that, Jens Lekman at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, OH in 2007. It was flawless, genuine, lovely, and a few more graphic words to boot.
BS: The New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, it's like living a Woody Allen soundtrack.
What are a few items essential to your “tour survival kit”?
GW: Touring and surviving don’t really go hand in hand. There is always a little of you that dies each time you go out, but on a lighter note there is always an element of you that blossoms as well!
When we travel, I bring more underwear and socks than anything, a few interchangeable shirts and pants, glasses repair kit, cell phone charger, pot, a can opener, canned food, fruit, Ramen, and Vitamin C packets which I just recently started bringing.
BS: NOW #1, money, purity of heart
MG: Deodorant, more underwear and socks than you think you’ll need, Brian’s answer.
What is the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
GW: “It Gets Better.”
JS: “Here, drink this.”
BS: “Vote for Ron Paul.”
MG: Best advice: “Here, Drink this.”
If you were to communicate using one word what would it be?
GW: I think if I only could use one word I probably just wouldn’t speak anymore. “Blah” seems like a good one though, or maybe “ooo.” “Fuck” already seems to cover a lot of meanings so maybe that’s a good one. Yeah, I might stick with that one.
MG: This seems like a horrible idea.
What can we expect from the band in the future?
GW: The goal is to continue writing, touring, releasing, and growing. I have always saw that as the responsibility of being in a band. Hopefully along the way our songs help people in some way. I suppose it isn’t 'til our songs reach a final product stage where I realize the intensity that is captured. It’s then when I get curious about how that will effect someone. I don’t spend too much time thinking about it though, as I have records to listen to that I hope do the same for me.
Favorite record shop in Chicago?
GW: Well, over time I have visited Reckless most often. Their "deliver it to the store closest to you for free" trick gets me every time. However, Favorite Records at the Pulaski Triangle is a new and budding Gem. It’s homey and the folks who work there are so god damn pleasant.
MG: I moved in two days ago, we’ll see.